PerformInk takes you inside Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of THE NANCE through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past “Inside” articles click here.
By R. H. Wilhoit
I first encountered Douglas Carter Beane my junior year of college. I was disillusioned with school, unhappy with the direction my life was going, and certainly sick of the Ozarks. I had even considered heavily limiting my involvement in the theatre program in order to move on to the next stage of my life at a quicker pace. I needed a zap of escape or inspiration. Beane delivered both. A friend of mine cast me as Alex, the young hustler with a heart of gold, in Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed;” a lost soul looking for the same zap I was looking for. I made a vow to seek out his other works in whatever city I ended up in and audition like mad for them. It took six years and a few cities to find one: Spinning Tree Theatre’s production of “The Nance.”
Seeing as “The Nance” takes place in the 1930’s New York vaudeville/burlesque scene, an era I wasn’t terribly familiar with, I dove into research immediately after being cast. The resources were endless: classic sketches available online, books galore (Gay New York by George Chauncey being one of Beane’s main inspirations), and a long conversation with Damian Blake, a local actor internationally known for his Charlie Chaplin impersonation. I wanted to get the physicality of a vaudevillian actor down pat before heading into rehearsal: exaggerated angular movement when playing the First Banana, slightly expressionistic touches when tackling the character roles in vaudeville sketches such as the mad scientist or goofy judge archetypes.
Rehearsals thus far have been the finest resource, however. A pool of some of the best actors and creative minds in KC coming together to put all their knowledge of the show and its origins on the table. Our directors, Michael and Nicole, have taken the time to give us a significant amount of table work, which is both invaluable and rare in my experience. There’s a lot to unpack, but it simply must be done before tackling this play.
The toughest and most rewarding work has certainly been through constructing the sketches and numbers that our characters perform many times a day. The songs are ALL earworms and the burlesque numbers performed by Ashley Personett, Sarah Montoya, and Katie Gilchrist are exquisite. Timothy Houston is featured as a man new to the scene, giving our characters a jolt of freshness. The added bonus has been working with Andy Perkins, a comedic savant who I’ve had the pleasure of working with before. We thankfully share a similar playfulness that makes the sketches a dream to perform every night.
While the show-within-a-show element of “The Nance” is a fascinating dive into an almost extinct form of theatre, the magic of this particular piece occurs once the performers are offstage. We, the actors, connect so much to these characters through their love for the theatre, warts and all. But what makes them fascinating to play is tracking what makes them human: dealing with their insecurities, sexuality, questionable political leanings, financial struggles, and even prejudice.
These hardships are eternal and that’s what makes Beane so brilliant: he’s willing to take that dive into the human condition and pad it with just enough hilarity to keep you smiling.
I’ve received that zap of inspiration again this past week in rehearsal. Come get one yourself Nov. 2-18.
For more information on THE NANCE visit spinningtreetheatre.com.
R.H. Wilhoit is thrilled to make his Spinning Tree Theatre debut as Efram in The Nance alongside so many talented KC artists. He was previously seen as Verges in Heart Of America Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing, Lucia in Confluence Theatre Company’s Measure for Measure, and Pigpen in Coterie Theatre’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. He’ll be wrapping up the year in the titular role of Mesner Puppet Theatre’s The Little Prince. R.H. would like to thank his father for his continued support.
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